“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;”
Thus begins one of the most memorable speeches ever written. Everyone in the English-speaking world has heard it. They may not know who speaks it or why, but they will probably know that what follows is the seven ages of man.
What is odd about this speech is that, unlike “To be or not to be” or “Friends, Romans, Countrymen,” it really doesn’t seem to have any purpose. For that matter its speaker, Jacques, does not seem to have any purpose. Neither he nor his most famous speech make any connection to the action of As You Like It. They are there, they are amusing, but they could both be easily pulled straight out of the play and nothing much would change for any of the characters, the plot or the outcome. So, what are they doing there?
I think that this speech is a direct reply to Ben Jonson’s Prologue in Every Man In His Humor. I have several reasons for thinking this. First is that Jonson made a very direct attack on the type of play that had been most successful on the London stage, in particular Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy (co-written I believe by Marlowe) and any number of the bold historical plays attributed to Shakespeare, including most recently at that time Julius Caesar.
Jonson explicitly advocated a theater that paid more attention to “deeds and language such as men do use” rather than one that depicted “Monsters.” Every Man In His Humor was Jonson’s alternative type of play.
In the second act of Jonson’s play, his lead character, Know-well, makes a long speech about how difficult it is to be the father of a ne’er-do-well son. In a lot of ways, this speech can be seen as a precursor to Jacques famous speech. It is not quite so well written from a poetic perspective, there are none of Jacques memorable lines, but it deals with similar issues, with a father reflecting on wayward youth and generational discontent.
Many scholars have convinced each other that Shakespeare “probably” played the role of Know-Well, based on the prominence of his name in the cast list and the importance of the role. I don’t believe that tradition has much supportive evidence. Shakespeare would have been in his mid thirties at the time of the play’s production, 1598, and should not be assumed to have been preferable to an actor old enough to play an elderly man.
I do believe that, regardless of whether or not Shakespeare played Know-Well, a second reason for Jacques’ speech was as an appreciation of Jonson’s premise. In a way, Jacques expands on Jonson. Where Jonson says he wants to focus on real men, Jacques reminds us that men are changeable and that they have more capacity than Jonson describes.
The irony is that Jacques is As You Like It’s Jonson. Jonson already had a reputation for being melancholy, as Jacques is repeatedly described, he was known for private study, which Jacques eventually decides to pursue, and they both reject the fanciful world of Arden.
All of which returns us to the war of the poets. There is no doubt that Jonson wanted to make a name for himself. He was not just a capable writer, he had a point of view and a theory of what drama should present that was demonstrated in his own work. As You Like It responded to this generously and it is notable that Jonson did not take offense at Jacques the way he did with Marston’s much less pointed critique.
In the long run, Jonson was never able to banish grand spectacles from the stage, who could? But his advocacy of domestic drama and domestic comedy has proved successful. While Jonson’s own plays are not produced with anything like the frequency of those attributed to Shakespeare, domestic comedy and drama dominates a variety of venues, including television, film (with the exception of super-hero epics) and the modern stage, saving only musicals.
Jacques, therefore, is not a mere melancholic. He is a voice from the past’s future. If he is nostalgic, it is because he knows that he will miss some of those epic spectacles that Jonson wants to replace on stage. Fortunately, for each of them, there has been plenty of room for both.
Next: Acting in the Age of Elizabeth
Dr. Peter Hodges holds a BFA in Acting from the University of Washington (class of ‘75), an M.A. in Directing and a Ph. D. in Literature from The City Graduate Center of The City University of New York City, New York (1986 and 1992). Dr. Pete (as he is sometimes known among his friends) is a 30 year veteran of the Wall Street wars, author and producer of more than a dozen plays, a novel, and a critical study of Sadakichi Hartmann’s plays.